Monday, May 28, 2012

Hong Kong is beautiful

After a day wandering around Kowloon with some visiting Friends of The Blog--in the expert care of Mrs. Blog, who has a knack for finding awesome places within awesome places--we wound up on the waterfront. (After having a cocktail at a great harbor-side bar that, guess what,
Mrs. Blog found.)

It happened to be a beautiful evening. That just magnified the impressive qualities of the Hong Kong skyline. There is something about it, about the way the outlines of some buildings disappear, leaving just columns of glittering lights, and the way other buildings jostle each other with unusual shapes. And behind all of this, of course, floats the darkness of the mountains in the center of Hong Kong island.

It's so pretty that even a Neanderthal like me can get a pretty good shot with his phone:

Not pictured: refreshing breeze, scent of saltwater.

OK, OK, so it was a little blurry.

But anyway, because this is Hong Kong, of COURSE it wasn't just a skyline we were looking at. It was a skyline with a light show.

The show goes on every night at 8 p.m., complete with music pumped out on both sides of Victoria Harbor. I'll be honest, it seemed a little... extraneous. But it was cool to see it as a tourist in my own city, knowing that the skyline--and the music, narration and dancing lights--will always be right down the street.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Maybe it has something to do with growing up on the plains, where summer storms are plentiful, powerful, and visible from a long way off, but I have always found myself soothed or even oddly moved by a good deluge. Rain snick-snicking on an umbrella is a treat (unless you are trying to carry a bunch of things and stay dry at the same time); the white noise of a nighttime shower is a relaxing blanket when you’re trying to sleep (unless you suddenly remember you left the windows in your car open). Waiting out a rainstorm at a baseball stadium, an excuse to enjoy a beer, a hotdog and a cooling breeze in the middle of August. Laughing as you get caught in a downpour with someone you love.

The first short story I ever sold was called “Rain,” and the protagonist sought solace from his current situation—caught in the teeth of a steamy, jungle-based South American war—in the memories of childhood rainstorms.

Needless to say, it rains all the time here. Sometimes it’s annoying, like when I forget my umbrella or was planning to spend the day doing something outside.

But a lot of the time I find it stirs a sort of quiet contemplation.

Lightning flashes over the hills of Kowloon at night. A maelstrom of rain turns the air over the harbor opaque. A morning storm wakes me up with thunder and apocalyptically gray skies, and after pouring some coffee, I watch the rain pummel the pavement 13 stories down.

Yeah. There’s no telling why, exactly, I feel this way about heavy rain. But here in Hong Kong, I’m glad I do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A visit from the People's Liberation Army

Several times recently, I have joked about how neat... or at least interesting... or at least nerdy it was to be so near to the biggest military aviation rollout in recent years. A J-20 flyby would be epic; I still remember how blown away I was the first time I saw the F-117 and B-2 in the air.

So what happened today as I sat at my desk, innocently reading a story about the euro zone's imminent collapse? The Chinese military showed up.

First came these:
The buzz begins.

It's hard to tell from a cellphone shot, but I'm pretty sure these have the two crewmen sitting one behind the other in staggered cockpits, which would make it either a Z-10 or the fancy, new Z-19. The camo pattern makes me think we're looking at land-based helos, plus I don't know whether that model is used at sea anyway.

Then came these:
... and gets bigger.

There were two of them, and they looked pretty convincingly like Type 0-37II guided missile corvettes. Just stone cold steamin' along through Victoria Harbor. Those two guys were followed by two of these:

Oil tanks? Or just tank tanks?

At first these looked like tankers, carrying fuel to resupply warships on longer voyages. But a co-worker found this, and I have to agree that they do look pretty similar, especially if you examine the aft half of the ship. So perhaps it's a landing craft. And finally, bringing up the rear, was this guy:

Mystery at sea.

I have no idea what this is. Looks like a catamaran, but it is not one of China's newer, much-publicized fast missile boats. There seems to be maybe a helipad on the aft deck? I dunno. It's almost like a yacht with a military paint job.

In any event, they motored past going west, then about 30 minutes later, came back the other way. And then the Admiral's Yacht, which you have to admit would be a good bar name, came back heading west again. And then it parked. So maybe the good folks of the somewhat hilariously named People's Liberation Army Navy were just doing some sightseeing. But whatever they were up to, I definitely enjoyed the view.*

*which was pretty impressive, despite the unimpressive quality of my cellphone shots

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ask an offensively sweaty gweilo anything

As summer approaches on the little subtropical island upon which I now live, temperatures are rising. They are not now, nor will they ever get to be what I call “Abu Dhabi hot,” which is in the range of 115 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. But Hong Kong is subtropical—that’s why there is so much lush vegetation everywhere—and that means enough humidity to make a guy like me perspire in the act of tying my shoe.

And because I am generally much bigger than the locals, that means I am a large pillar of sweat walking among them, riding the MTR with them and crowding onto a ding-ding with them. Contact is assured, and assuredly unpleasant for them. I’m sure they were wondering what the deal was (Did he just run a marathon? Does he have a high fever?), and that has led me to write this, the first of an occasional series in which I, the offensively sweaty gweilo, answer these types of questions, asked and unasked. So without further ado, let me mop my brow and begin.

Q: Dear Offensively Sweaty Gweilo,
Why are you sweating all over this ding-ding? There is a pleasant breeze, you’re wearing short sleeves and sitting still. Help me understand this.

A: Ah, you probably saw me on Thursday. You see, Mrs. Blog and I (who is a gweilo, but most certainly not an offensive one in any way) were doing some painting. And as the bedroom neared completion, we realized that we needed one more liter of this very specific Sudan Sand color. So, long story short, I walked all over our neighborhood, then the next neighborhood over, and finally two MTR stops away to get the right stuff. And, well, motion generates heat. It’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation. Sorry if I slimed you.

Q: Dear OSG,
I, a native Hong Konger, walk everywhere. There is great public transportation and the city is full of places to go. Yet I manage not to collapse into a puddle of saltwater. What’s the deal?

A: Well, I have a theory. You know how you will sometimes frustrate me by meandering along the sidewalk when I am in a hurry to get somewhere? I think you’re walking more slowly, consciously or not, to save energy and thus get less hot. I, on the other hand, bounce along on my freakishly long legs and get my metabolism all worked up. So maybe if I worked a little harder at going native, I could work a little less hard at not dripping sweat.

Q: Hey, OSG,
When I get hot, I just take off my shirt. You have probably seen me in the market, on the street, riding a motorcycle and in the mall. It’s a good solution.

A: And a fine solution it is. I have no problem doing this when I am, say, working around the house or playing basketball. But there’s something a little odd about being in a shopping mall without your shirt that I can’t get past—sorry. (Although I did once go to a New Zealand grocery store barefoot.)

Q: Dear OSG,
Since you are so comically oversized, do you ever have problems with the dimensions of everyday life here?

A: Hey, thanks for the non-sweat-related question. And the answer is yes. The ding-ding, for instance, has a ceiling that is probably about six feet tall. Maybe a little less. Which means if I’m not sitting on one of the benches, my neck is bowed down like a sad giraffe. The MTR is fine, except for the doorways—I have to duck about an inch. I was in a bank the other day in which all the employee-only doors looked to me like secret passages, with a height of no more than 5-foot-10. Having said all that, this is a city filled with people of all shapes and sizes, so it’s not usually a huge inconvenience. Except shoes. I haven’t laid eyes on a pair of size 15s since I left the U.S.

And that’s it for this installment! Thanks for writing in, and as always, the Offensively Sweaty Gweilo will be happy to answer all your burning questions… just as soon as he has a nice, cold glass of water.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The good news is, we have a couch

I realize that this has been an exceptionally long dry spell of posting, even for a guy who has been known to skip town for a few weeks at a time.

The thing is, life has been busy. Busier than it has been in a long time.

For one thing, Mrs. Blog and I are in the midst of the biggest nesting endeavor ever. In Abu Dhabi, a place that always felt oddly temporary to us--and the millions of other imported workers--we were content to furnish out place in the yellow-and-blue wonderland that is Ikea. It was cheap, smartly designed and gave us an L-shaped sofa that turned into a guest bed. Hooray for Swedish innovation.

But everyone else in the country had roughly the same idea, remember. So inevitably, no matter whose house we were visiting, we inevitably encountered some of the same Ikea influences that shaped our own living space. (Our orange living room, blue bedroom and pink office, however, were singular and awesome. Have I ever told you about how we picked out the colors over Skype, with me in the 'Dhabs and Mrs. Blog in the Windy City?)

Hong Kong, whatever your intentions are when you arrive, feels like a much more permanent place. It has a reason to be. For thousands of years before the British showed up to colonize, the islands were dotted with fishing villages; the sea and a safe harbor made it a good place to live. Much later, after China decided it did not want much to do with the rest of the world, Hong Kong became an obvious and successful conduit for trade. As a place that was "almost" China, it had a foot in both worlds.

Which brings us to our apartment. It is fairly large by Hong Kong standards. It was also mostly devoid of furniture by any standard. But we made a decision, a pact--we would not use Ikea furniture. Sure, it was one-tenth the price of other stuff and you could see every bit of it in a showroom. But if you go there for anything other than meatballs (or hot dogs--enormously popular at the Hong Kong Ikea), you can't miss the fact that a pulsating throng of other people are attracted to those same qualities.

Hong Kong has permanence. So should our furniture.

That has led to treks all around Hong Kong trying to track down an elusive couch or coffee table. Mrs. Blog has deployed her considerable design instincts and invested even more time on her own in the hunt. It has been a slow process, but it has brought us interesting pieces like these rearrangeable shelves, which may or may not remind you of a certain Slavic video game:

Try as I might, though, I can't remember the theme music.

So that has been a big part of our life, eating not just time for blogging--sorry, Dear Reader--but other stuff like seeing giant Buddhas on mountaintops. Don't worry, though, that's on our agenda.

I also have a job here. It's a good job, editing for a big, international media organization whose stories are read by millions worldwide. It has given me a face-to-face introduction to the global news cycle, which went something like this:

Hi, I'm Gerry.

Hi, I'm the global news cycle.

Nice to meet you. So tell me a little bit about yourself--

It's always overnight someplace. Which means the readers there are asleep. Which means they will wake up and see the news that someone else sees before they go to bed. Big election in California? Los Angelenos will see the preliminary results on the evening news and maybe the full story in the next day's paper. Hong Kongers--if they care about California elections at all--will get the full story online during their work day and get analysis in the morning paper. A story that starts in Hong Kong will be read last in California; a story that starts in New York will be read last in Hong Kong.

Hey, I didn't say it was a gripping conversation. But it's tough to wrap your head around, at least at first.

The job also meant at least dipping my toe into a lot of different skill sets. I have been editor of the sports section, editor of the business section, early news guy, late news guy, copy editor, deputy this and that... pretty much everything but Chief Coffeemaker, a title currently held by the office Nespresso machine.

Now I'm settling into a more steady role as a business editor. And this is a new thing for me. I filled my notebooks with hard news as a reporter, and as an editor I seldom came across a story with arcane terms like "basis points," "three-year money" and "Sachinidis" in close proximity. Or at all. But Hong Kong has changed all that, and I am enjoying it immensely.

This is the center of the financial universe at the moment, at least in terms of news. Everything that happens in China affects the rest of the world; there are too many people buying and manufacturing things there for their actions to go ignored. A tiny change in a key interest rate affects how many people borrow money, and how much money they borrow affects how much they spend, and that affects how many iPhones Apple sells. I am helping tell stories with nuts-and-bolts cores, and draping them with flesh that anyone, anywhere, can consume and appreciate.

Plus, insinuations of zombieism aside, check out the view from my office window:

A little of everything: sailboat racing, barges and tugboats, with a cruise ship watching.

And that brings us back to one of the major effects of all this nesting, learning and exploring. I haven't had much time to blog. Or, on some days, even take a deep breath. But here's the thing, the silver lining in this storm of activity: It means when I do sit down to write--and I have an office to write in now--my brain is nearly overflowing with new experiences that, whether I know it or not, are begging to be let onto the page.

Which is just a long-winded way of saying, "Don't worry, I'm going to blog more. Sorry about that."